Mercedes-Benz wins 1952 Le Mans 24 Hours

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Mercedes-Benz wins Les Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans
Panhard wins Coupe Biennale ; Jupiter wins the 11/2-litre class [from our Continental Correspondent]

The build-up for this year’s Le Mans 24-hour race was the biggest ever and for months beforehand it was claimed it would he the race of the century, but as the day drew near the noise and near tumult began to die down, over-riding everything else was the three-cornered star of Mercedes-Benz. The German team overshadowed the whole meeting, not by any reason of superiority of machines or drivers, but by the subtle spreading of a vast inferiority complex among the other teams.

Before the start.  All through practice the Mercedes-Benz team went about their job with an ominous air of satisfaction, and this spread, causing alarm and despondency everywhere. Never once did the Germans make any claim that they hoped to win; they we’re merely confident that their team was as good as it could be. They didn’t even make fastest practice lap. Ascari did that on the new 3-litre Ferrari saloon; but everyone said it was only because they hadn’t been trying. This self-undermining of the morale was playing havoc and more than likely the Germans knew nothing about it.

With the complete Alfa-Romeo team and the Spanish Pegaso team withdrawn, it was left to Cunningliams, Allard, Jaguars, Aston-Martins, Ferraris and Talbots to fend off the German attack, but none of these inspired enough confidence to raise hopes. The Cunningham team, consisting of two open cars and a rather neat coupe. were trundling round merrily sounding rather like long-distance lorries, and were too confident of winning to be taken seriously. The Allards simply were not fast enough, although they were running well and not having any troubles, while Jaguar were behaving like a certain infamous Formula 1 team and giving the appearance of never having raced before. The XK120C cars had been fitted with new bodies of more aerodynamic form and spray lines indicated that they were a great imprnvement over the old ones. The new body meant a rearrangement of the cooling system, employing a lower radiator, sealed under pressure, with a blow-off header tank on the bulkhead. All three cars were thus fitted and it didn’t take many laps to show that the system was not working at high speed and the cars came in badly overheating. It was not a simple ease of too high running temperature, it was a fault in the circulation, for on the Mulsanne straight the temperature fluctuated violently up and down. Apart from this bother the drivers were not happy with steering (having to use the same size tyres back and front probably being the trouble), while the curved Perspex screens caused too much wind-buffeting for a long race. Altogether, Jaguars were in a flap and when it reached the point where some of the drivers tried to wear the technicians’ No 8 hats it was obvious that self-confidence had gone from the team and the end was in sight.

This shifted English hopes to the DB3 Aston-Martins, two open ones and the prettiest coupe yet produeed from England. The “new boy” Pat Griffiths, bent one of the open ones rather badly but the other two were going very well, though having the 21/2-litre engines they could not hope to match Mercedes-Benz. There were Ferraris of all varieties present, open 2.5-litres, coupe 3-litres, open 4.1-litres and coupe 4.1-litres, with varying teams of drivers from Ascari and Villoresi to virtual newcomers. While they would all go at fantastic speeds there did not appear much hope of any of them lasting the distance. Lastly there were the assorted Talbots, all 11/2-litre Lagos as have been running for many years, and it didn’t seem that they could hope to be fast enough, though undoubtedly they would be reliable. There was one other unknown quantity, the new 2.3-litre six-cylinder Gordini, which was going absurdly fast for its size, but its reliability was doubtful.

Mercedes-Benz produced five cars for practice, the three team car’s driven by Karl Kling and Hans Klenk, Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess and two German sports-car drivers. Helfrich and Niedermayer. The team cars were new ones with the hinged sides to the cockpit extended halfway down the body side, as tried on the practice car at Berne last month, and with large fuel-tank fillers protruding through the rear window. The three cars were finished in silver, with the body interior, the upholstery of the seats, and the surround of the radiator grille in green, blue and red for the respective pairs of drivers mentioned above. Also, each car had similar coloured identification lights in the front and rear of the cockpit. The pit itself was made conspicuous to the drivers by a blue circular board of about 3 ft diameter with the Merciides-Benz star on it, illuminated from above at night. This was just one of the many little ways in which German thoroughness was making everyone else look like amateurs. Of the two spare cars, one was an early one being flogged round by all the drivers and played with, while the other was an experimental car fitted with an air brake above the rear window. It was like a large aeroplane wing, the width of the car and hinged to turn through 90 degrees, operated by an extra foot pedal through rods, slides and bell-cranks, while a hand-lever on the driver’s left side locked the “wing” in a horizontal position. The team cars were so well prepared that they arrived ready for practice and the bonnets were not even opened, while they also had time to play with the new brake. Most teams arrived at the circuit and started work under the bonnets straightaway !

As 4 pm approached on Saturday afternoon the cars were arranged in starting order and the drivers stood opposite on their circles. At the top of the line was a lone Talbot, driven by Chambas and Morel, which had been enlarged to 4.966 cc, and fitted with two superchargers, belt-driven from the crankshaft. Then came the three Cunninghams looking resplendent in white with a double blue line down the centre, driven by Cunningham/Spear, Carter/Walters and Fitch/Rice. The two green all-enveloping Chrysler-Allards were fit and ready, handled by Fairman/Allard and Dantov/Curtis, then a variety of Talbots with varying body shapes. followed by the two peculiar-looking Nash-Healeys of Johnson/Wisdom and Caliantous/Veyron. Four American model Ferraris followed, Chinetti/Lucas (open two-seater), Simon/Vincent (coupe), Rosier/Trintignant (open two-seater) and Helde/Dreyfus (two-seater), the last pair being very old Le Mans drivers. Of the olive green XK120C Jaguars of Moss/Walker, Rolt/Hamilton and Stuart/Whitehead, the first two were re-fitted with old type radiators and cooling system in a pathetic attempt to overcome the heating, while they all had the bonnet louvres hacked about in a futile attempt to reduce a non-existent under-bonnet pressure. The fitting of the old radiators necessitated banging crude bulges in the beautiful streamlined bonnets. The Ascari/Villoresi Ferrari coupe was of 2,998 cc and had three new Weber carburetters; these were downdraught models with four chokes and throttles apiece, the engine having 12 carburetters, in effect. Mercedes-Benz obviously knew what they had to do, while the Aston-Martins were England’s only real hope. Macklin/Coffins had an open two-seater with yellow grille and identification lamp in the side of the body; Poore/Griffiths, also with an open car, had blue colour, and Parnell/Thompson with the coupe had red colour. A red coupe 2,116-cc Ferrari entered by the works was driven by Pagnibon/Tom Cole, and two privately-owned DB2 Aston-Martins, Mann/Goodall and Clark/Keen, followed, together with the Moran/Cornacchia 2,563-cc Ferrari coupe.

In the same class was the lone Gordini of Manzon/Behra, of 2,262 cc, the engine being an enlarged version of the Formula II Gordini. The chassis was a 1951-type but fitted with the latest Formula II brakes. So the long starting line went on down through the impressive Lancia Aurelies, a single Morgan Plus Four, privately entered Frazer-Nashes, R1 Jupiters, Porsche, a lone Osca saloon, down to DB Panharda and 4CV Renaults.

The Race. With its starting-line advantage the saloon Cunningham went off in the lead, but Moss, Simon and Ascari soon battled their way through the melee. The first hour of such a race usually sorts things out and this was no exception. Ascari set an absurd pace, putting the lap record up to 173.159 kph, with a lap in 4 min 40.5 sec, six seconds faster than Moss last year, and then retired with a slipping clutch. Simon was forcing the pace with his 4.1-litre Ferrari coupe, followed by Moss, Walters, Rolt, Manzon and Levegh (Talbot). The Mercedes-Benz team were running in order 9th, 10th and 11th, content to let everyone else set the pace. Stuart (Jaguar) had already been in, worried by the water-temperature, and Parnell had broken the coupe DB3’s rear axle. It was obvious that the Jaguars would not last and before the race was 31/2 hours old they were all in the dead-car park. Simon was still setting the pace, with Manzon not far behind and Walters driving the Cunningham saloon well in third place. Just after 7 pm, he refuelled and handed over to Carter, who promptly ran into a sandbank and had to spend 11 hours digging it out, dropping right out of the running.

By 8 pm the leading Ferrari had run into trouble, letting the Gordini take the lead, followed by the Mercedes-Benz of Kling/Klenk, the open Cunningham of Fitch/Rice, Rosier/Trintignant’s 4.1-litre Ferrari, Niedemayer/Helfrich, Leveghes Talbot and Lang/Riess. The Gordini was setting such a pace that it was leading on handicap as well as distance and it continued to keep up the pace even when darkness fell. By I0 pm it had covered more than the distance required of its class by 12 pm. As darkness fell and lights came on the evening was fine and dry and it looked as if the night would be kind to the drivers. The Mercedes-Benz of Kling/Klenk ran into dynamo trouble and after a while had to retire for this reason. Levegh, driving on his own, worked his Talbot up into second place but could not catch the flying Gordini, now with Behra at the wheel. By midnight Mercedes-Benz were running third and fourth and making no attempt to challenge the leaders, and everyone felt the Gordini could not possibly keep up its furious pace. Only the DB3 of Macklin/Collins was left of that team, two Cunninghams had dropped valves and Allard had worked his car well up onto the leader-board. Around 2 am a thick fog enveloped part of the circuit and the speeds dropped, but the Gordini, with Manzon at the wheel, was going at a terrifying speed for the conditions. At 3.30 am the end came when the front brakes of the Gordini packed up. Marmon and Behra were all for carrying on with rear brakes only, but “the sorcerer” said no ! It was out, after a run that will live in history. Gordini had achieved his object, a win or a glorious failure and everyone admired the wonderful effort of the little 2.3-litre car. Levegh was now comfortably in the lead, with Mercedes-Benz second and third and giving the appearance of sitting and waiting. Macklin/Collins were bolding a splendid fourth and Sydney Allard was fifth with half the race gone. Retirements had been numerous, but both private Astons were running, as were the Frazer-Nashes of Stoop/Wilson and Peacock/Ruddock and the Jowett Jupiters of Hadley/Wise and Becquart/Wilkins. One Nash-Healey had retired and only one Ferrari was left running, that of Simon/Vincent. With the retirement of the Simca, the tension of the race relaxed and everyone now waited and speculated upon when the Mereedes-Benz would start speeding up and displace Levegh’s Talbot from the lead. At 6 am Allard had nasty noises in his engine and Dantov/Curtis were not happy, having been running on three brakes since the previous evening when a broken shock-absorber damaged a front brake pipe. At 6.30 am Sydney walked back to the pits with Dantov, having thrown a rod, the other car having broken its transmission. All this time a little Monopole-Panhard, driven by Hemard/Dussous, was leading on handicap, running round like a train.

At 9 am there were only 22 cars out of the 57 starters still running and the Talbot was four laps in front of the Mercedes-Benz, Levegh still driving alone, as was Briggs-Cunningham in the only American car left, running in seventh place. The little 1,350-cc Osca had been humming round in 14th place, but had to pack up when its clutch gave trouble. Both Frazer-Nashes were running well in 12th and 13th place, but the Stoop/Wilson car then de-arranged its rear axle. Shortly before mid-day, with just over four hours to go, the Helfrich/Niedermayer car buckled a rear wheel and limped into the pits, and Macklin brought the DB3 in with smoke rising from the rear-axle ! Both cars set off again, the Mercedes-Benz third, and the DB3 fifth, having dropped a place to the Johnson/Wisdom Nash-Healey that had been creeping up regularly. The two Lancia Aurelias were giving a wonderful display of regularity as were the Porsche saloons, while Becquart/Wilkins were circulating the Jupiter comfortably alone in its class after the 11/2-litre Porsche was disqualified for refuelling with its engine running. Cunningham at last handed over to Spear, but Levegh continued to drive alone. Macklin handed over to Collins, but the Aston-Martin broke up shortly afterwards and the Peacock/Ruddock Frazer-Nash tore up its offside front wheel locating studs ; with fingers crossed the two drivers continued to tour round at 30 mph hoping the hub would not collapse. This they did for three hours and they brought the car home much to the crowd’s appreciation and their own relief. With only two hours to go Levegh decided to go the full distance single-handed and Mercedes-Benz were obviously content with second and third places. The Johnson/Wisdom Healey was fourth. Cunningham/Spear fifth and the Bonetto/Anselmi Aurelia sixth. The little Panhard two-seater was going as well as ever, leading on handicap, and the Germans were running so regularly that they were second and third on handicap as well as distance. Although he was four laps in front, Levegh had to maintain a constant speed and he was lapping 15 seconds faster than the winning Jaguar last year at the same hour. The two Mercedes-Benz were hovering behind, two laps apart, so that Levegh could not relax. With only 11/4 hours to go the inevitable happened, a big-end broke up in the Talbot and that was that. The Frenchman returned to the pits in a state of exhaustion amid cheers from the crowd and the two German cars closed up together and came over the line to win the 24 hours GP d’Endurance and to receive the applause of a crowd appreciative of efficiency. Briggs Cunningham took over his car just before the end and brought it home in fourth place.

The Germans had won not by overwhelming force, but by a degree of luck combined with a splendid display of efficiency and team, control, and though every sympathy went out to poor Levegh, the Germans couldn’t have had a better win had they planned it all before-hand. The Nash-Healey that finished third deserves every credit, for Johnson and Wisdom drove a very steady and well controlled race, benefiting by other people’s failures, which so often pays in a gruelling race like Le Mans. British private owners did well by careful planning and regular running, the Clark/Keen Aston-Martin finishing seventh, with the Frazer-Nash beautifully nursed into 10th place and the Anglo-French Becquart/Wilkins Jupiter 13th, sole survivor and thus winner of the 11/2-litre class, its rather low speed explained by about 11/2 hours delay removing water from the official fuel supplied to the cars.